It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it!

Put under the pressure of walking in your shoes
Caught in the undertow, just caught in the undertow
Every step that I take is another mistake to you
Caught in the undertow, just caught in the undertow

Linkin Park – Numb

I’ve just done a very quick search on traits of effective leadership and, guess what, none of them include bullying in any form.

On an almost daily basis on Twitter we seem to read stories about school leaders who seem to have lost their moral compass.  People who, when elevated to SLT positions in their schools, have forgotten that the one thing that schools are all about is people.

How does it go wrong?  What pressure is being applied to people who, we can assume, were once at least adequate classroom practitioners?  Or is it more fundamental than this and we are not identifying the correct people to put into leadership positions?

Let me start by making a bold statement:


There, let’s get that out in the open now.  Whether in your own classroom, subject or indeed school, we are all required to show a modicum of leadership.  If you cannot lead your learners where you want them to go then you cannot be doing the best for them.  If your subject leadership is failing then whatever good stuff is going on in your own classroom will not be replicated across school.  If you cannot lead across a school…

‘Leadership is visionary; it is the projection of personality and character to inspire people to achieve the desired outcome.’

(Extract from Leadership in Defence – Defence Leadership & Management Centre – 2004)

Whatever sphere we work in this quote rings true.  Leadership is about getting people to do what you want/need them to do to achieve an outcome.  In education I feel that we are losing sight of what we want the outcome to be.  Schools have to revolve around the needs of the children in them.  Not the staff (although this comes a close second), not the DfE, OFSTED or any other myriad of organisations that exist to seeming make our lives more complicated.  If we lose sight of this then we start dancing to the wrong tune.

When I was in the Royal Air Force I was trained as a “leadership mentor”.  This meant that I was responsible for the development of individuals, often stationed in other parts of the country, in what the RAF decided their leadership priorities were.  Now these priorities were not just plucked out of thin air – the RAF Leadership Centre had looked at all the traditional models of leadership and took a view that all had something to offer.  This was distilled into the following traits:

  • Warfighter, Courageous
  • Emotionally Intelligent
  • Flexible and Responsive
  • Willing to Take Risks
  • Mentally Agile – Physically Robust
  • Able to Handle Ambiguity
  • Politically and Globally Astute
  • Technologically Competent
  • Able to Lead tomorrow’s Recruit

If we apply this model to the teaching world then are we dissimilar?   Let’s look in some detail…

Warfighter, Courageous 

Now nobody really accepts that teaching is a battleground but our leaders do need courage; moral courage to do the right thing for their students.  We see this currently with head teachers who do the right thing with Y6 SATs, not passing on stress to children and, perhaps more importantly, seeing that there is more to educating young children than one week in May.

Emotionally Intelligent

All leaders need to be this.  In fact, all teachers need this quality.  It’s the ability to react rationally in any given situation, listening well and making judgements based on empathetic reasoning.  It also means knowing the team you lead, knowing their strengths and weaknesses and understanding how to motivate them.

Flexible and Responsive

We’ve all been there, the unannounced visitor to school, THE phone call etc.  The key is to take these things in our stride and see it as just part of a day in school.  We do this all the time in our classrooms; when a questioning child takes our topic in a completely different direction to which we wanted it to go but we seize upon the learning opportunity and drive it forward to help our children learn.

Willing to take risks

One of my ITT tutors once told me, “no risk – no outstanding”.  This rings true from a leadership perspective.  If you show that you are willing to support risk taking, whether this be a new marking approach or even a different way of running playtimes, then your staff will feel more comfortable in approaching you with their ideas and ultimately will support yours if they buy into it.

Mentally Agile – Physically Robust 

Teaching is hard – sometimes physically (depending on setting) but always mentally.  Thinking on our feet is what we do all day, every day.  The most meticulously planned lesson will not survive contact with a Y4 class that have just had a wet play-time on a Wednesday morning.  This robustness and agility rings true for leaders too.  So the Y3 cohort haven’t done as well as you thought they would – why do the same interventions again and again, think of something different.  Be agile and take a risk!

Able to Handle Ambiguity  

Are your leadership goals adequately communicated to your team?  Have they bought in or is someone putting their own spin on things?  Is there ambiguity in what your LA/OFSTED are saying?  Can you align your own moral compass to say what direction your ship is sailing in?  Ambiguity can kill team cohesion; be clear in your own message but be able to be flexible when others are not.

Politically and Globally Astute

Education is a political game.  Whoever is in government will want to change things so maybe it is the job of schools to attempt to be one step ahead.  Times table tests?  Teach them young through deliberate practice.  Broad and balanced curriculum?  Make sure you are providing one.  Workload?  How are you making life easier for your staff?  Using Twitter (which you most probably are if you are reading this) helps you stay abreast of edu-fads but, more importantly, puts you in contact with other educators in exactly the same position that you are in.

Technologically Competent

Tech is here to stay.  No matter how many times we say pedagogy first we still feel the pull to invest in tech for our schools.  However, don’t be suckered in by the first consultant that says you need the latest (insert model here) if you want to provide the best option for your children – get to know what works for yourself.  Even better, take a risk, use some emotional intelligence and empower your staff to make the choices and keep you informed.

Able to Lead tomorrow’s Recruit 

Teaching is not full of people like you.  It is not even full of people who want to be like you, which is the inherent beauty of the profession.  The ability to get the most out of your team, from the embittered old guard that have been “passed-over” for promotion (more likely not applied for anything that takes them outside their comfort zone) to the greenest NQT is an underrated skill.  All of the above attributes are required to make sure we are getting the best out of our most valuable resource – teachers!

None of the above things are possible without vast amounts of personal integrity though.  You can be the most efficient manager in the world without having any ability to lead.  Some of the worst managers make great leaders and vice versa.  However it can all be done without laying waste to your own principles.  A stick and carrot approach may work for some but you have to ensure the carrot is something they want.  You also cannot beat them with the stick all the time whilst keeping the carrot constantly out of their grasp.  Some school leaders seem to have spent too much time watching The Apprentice and have picked up their autocratic management style from these.  Remember that teaching is not a business (no matter what your business manager or MAT board are telling you).  You don’t produce or sell anything, you simply spend resources to make children cleverer than they were when they first entered your building.  Never forget this and keep it as your mantra.  If something you want to do has no positive impact on the education of children then don’t do it.  It is that simple.

Your staff will thank you for all of this and, who knows, might even be inspired to become leaders themselves…

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